Lee Blakeley Talks Directing “The Humming Chorus”

Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

“The Humming Chorus” is a rare moment of peace in the tragic love story that is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the scene, Butterfly does not sing or move for three minutes. She holds a silent vigil, waiting for Pinkerton (her American husband) to return, while an off-stage chorus sings. “The Humming Chorus” is a scene that carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, highlighted in LA Opera’s current production by director Lee Blakeley’s novel take on which character the scene belongs to.

For Blakeley, whether he is directing theater or opera, it is all about storytelling. When he signed on to direct this production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, he went back to basics. His primary job in the early stages of directing was to answer the question, “What do you strip away to find the essential truth of the piece?” He knew the first thing he had to do was rid himself of any preconceived notions of what the opera could be, which can be difficult with such a familiar work as Butterfly. With a blank sheet of paper and the libretto, he listened to Puccini’s music, while working through the text.

Blakeley came to understand that the essential truth – or theme – of Madame Butterfly is “loyalty in the face of adversity.” That singular theme informed all of Blakeley’s directorial choices for this production, whether it was the decisions he preplanned (for example, updating the setting to 1904, the year the opera premiered) or choices he “discovered along the way,” while working with singers.

“One of the joys of Madame Butterfly is that it works moment to moment, like a play,” says Blakeley. The characters continually play off each other – acting, reacting, and existing entirely in the moment. It is different from other operas – say, the works of Rossini or Handel – where everything stops for a character to have a private moment of realization in the form of an aria (kind of like an extended monologue). In Madame Butterfly, even Butterfly’s famous aria, “Un bel di vedremo” is sung very much addressed to Suzuki. It is a shared moment between them, despite the fact that only Butterfly sings.

Milena Kitic as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Milena Kitic as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

It is this idea of shared moments and the loyalty underlying them that ultimately led Blakeley to discover what “The Humming Chorus” would mean in his production.

“It’s all about Suzuki,” says Blakeley.

In this production, Butterfly (Ana María Martínez) and her son sit in their home, with their backs to the audience, sharing a private moment. Suzuki (Milena Kitic) puts out a series of lanterns as night falls. Once she is finished, she goes to leave, but suddenly turns around and breaks down crying. It is an incredibly honest moment that showcases the “personal cost to Suzuki.” She is Butterfly’s rock. Even though she is skeptical about Pinkerton’s return, Suzuki is extraordinarily loyal. The audience is privy to her vulnerability, but Butterfly will only see the best of her.

Traditionally, “The Humming Chorus” is staged as Butterfly’s moment, but Blakeley’s choice to stage it as Suzuki’s moment illustrates how interesting directorial choices can add new emotional weight to a piece – even an opera that is over a century old.

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